The Department of Defense recognizes that childcare for military families is one of the most critical military quality-of-life issues within the DoD. Choosing the right childcare is crucial; paying for it can be daunting on a limited budget and junior enlisted troops know all too well how difficult it can be to balance military duty with the financial realities of having a family.
Fortunately for military families, the Department of Defense provides affordable, income-based childcare options. These include:
- Child Development Centers
- After-school programs for school-age children
- Fee assistance for qualifying military families
Improvements to Childcare for Military Families
One of the most significant improvements to military childcare benefits happened in 2023 with the creation of the Defense Department’s Military Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account program, also known as DCFSA.
This program allows qualifying servicemembers to make pre-tax contributions to a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account up to $5000 a year. These funds can be used to pay for day care, after school care, adult day care, and related costs.
This program was launched with a November 2023 signup drive, and DCFSA open season is from mid-November through mid-December.
DoD DCFSA account signups are available for active-duty troops and for National Guard or Reserve troops on Title 10 orders, which means they have been called to active duty by the President.
The accounts are not available to Guard or Reserve troops under Title 32 orders or members of the Coast Guard at press time, but future expansion of the program is possible.
Other DoD Improvements in Military Childcare
The DoD’s commitment to military childcare is essential to a larger push to reform military services, assignments, and living standards. In 2022, the Secretary of Defense directed his department to take the following steps to enhance military childcare.
- The department must consider “significant investment”s in Child Development Program (CDP) facilities and infrastructure;
- Offer a standard minimum 50 percent discount for “the first child” of on-base direct-care workers, “helping to attract more talented staff and to increase capacity,” according to the Department of Defense.
- Improve access to child care programs such as Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood.
- Expand the DoD’s in-home child care fee-assistance pilot program to more bases.
- Extending the operating hours of Military Child Development Centers.
This help can extend to those who have special needs, require reasonable accommodation, or have medical issues that might require additional resources.
Other reforms have also been implemented.
- The number of income categories for CDC fees has increased to 14, “providing a more equitable division of fees based on total family income.”
- A “community provider fee assistance rate cap” established at $1,500 per child per month has increased to $1,700 per child per month. This is meant to “ensure child care subsidies for military-certified family child care providers are consistent with the community provider fee assistance rate cap.”
- The Defense Secretary has approved dependent care flexible spending accounts, which according to the DoD, will allow “service members to set aside up to $5,000 in pretax income, through payroll deductions, for eligible dependent care expenses. Defense working groups are in the process of developing procedures to implement those accounts…”
- According to the DoD, there is a minimum of “50% appropriated fund support for child development programs with revenue generated by parent fees providing the remaining 50% of operating revenue. Childcare costs are shared between the DOD and families.
Military Childcare Options
There are a variety of choices you can make when exploring your DoD childcare options. Many are offered as on-base opportunities, while some DoD child care programs include off-post care providers.
DoD child care programs include:
- Child Development Centers
- Family Child Care
- School Age Care
Each of these options comes with its own set of considerations. Child Development Centers, for example, may or may not have the ability to offer drop-in care, part-day care, or hourly care. Much depends on demand, staffing, and other variables.
Some options are offered at facilities operated by the DoD, others are offered in private homes accredited and monitored by the Department of Defense.
Child Development Centers (CDCs)
CDCs are typically found on base and are open to infants to preschool-age children. This care is typically offered during duty hours, which may or may not include extended hours. The base’s mission and other variables will affect the standard operating times for CDC care.
CDC care is accredited and monitored, but the programs offered are not necessarily consistent from base to base, stateside to overseas, etc. Some CDCs offer part-day care, some may offer hourly or drop-in care on a space-available basis only, while others won’t offer it.
CDC programs typically carry DOD certification from a national accrediting organization such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Family Child Care (FCC)
While FCC may sound like a generic name, it describes a specific alternative option to Child Development Centers. CDCs feature waiting lists and many parents find they must locate an alternative while waiting out those lists.
Family Child Care is one option to help you do that; child care is provided from private homes, typically on-post in family housing. FCC care providers are certified professionals, FCC homes are inspected and monitored.
This care is typically offered for infants to school-age children. FCC homes can be on or off base, they may feature flexible care hours and some may even offer 24/7 care. FCC homes have limits–they cannot accommodate more than six children at a time and no more than three children at a time who are under two.
School-Age Care Programs (SAC)
This care option, offered in DoD youth centers, CDCs, and other facilities, offers care for school-age children between kindergarten and sixth grade. This is offered as before-school, after-school, and non-school daycare. All CDC programs are DOD certified and accredited.
Sometimes, military parents need childcare on an hourly basis. This can be a challenge given that affordable child care on military bases is subject to high demand, but the DoD has expanded its child care service options to include an online caregiver search tool that helps military families access a nationally recognized caregiver database.
Using this tool you can:
- Search for care
- Find potential care providers
- Check the background and references of caregivers
- Interview, hire, and pay care providers
To use this database you must create or maintain an account at MilitaryOneSource.mil. You’ll need to log in and retrieve a special subscription code to start using your childcare account.
Military Childcare and the Exceptional Family Member Program
The Exceptional Family Member Program is a DoD option for those who have a family member with special needs.
This program, sometimes called EFMP for short, offers family support and coordination for those getting ready to make a Permanent Change of Station move. EFMP involves a special needs consultation that can help determine what types of reasonable accommodations might be necessary
If a military spouse, child or other dependent family member needs “ongoing medical or educational services,” signing up with EFMP is mandatory but provides access to services and support that can help.
Many services may be offered via EFMP Family Support at your base. You can get details about referral services, and community services, as well as:
- Finding programs in new locations
- Finding resources to fill gaps in programs, services, and support
- Details on any early intervention services
- Local resources for school and special education support
- School liaison locator
We mention EFMP here because, in many cases, you may have expanded access to DoD child care, you may be given priority placement on CDC waiting lists or alternatives to CDC care options based on EFMP enrollment. Your choices will vary depending on the base, demand, mission requirements, and other variables.
If you have a child enrolled in EFMP and are expecting orders to a new assignment, it may be smart to consult an EFMP or CDC rep about your options when going to the new base. Some military assignments cannot accommodate those in EFMP, and you may need to seek childcare in such cases at the nearest installation where your family members live in the meantime.
Related: Spouse and Dependent Benefits
What to Know About Military Childcare
Getting on a waiting list for a CDC near you isn’t as simple as signing up. In many cases, you need orders to show you are being assigned to that installation, as priority placement is made for those who are assigned there.
Some military communities have exceptions to this; if you are assigned to certain bases in California, for example, you may work at one nearby installation by finding housing on a different nearby base. In such cases, your childcare options may be dictated by your location. But not always.
Waiting lists can be long, and it’s best to contact the CDC at your gaining base as soon as you have orders.
Waiting List Issues
Some may allow you to backdate your entry on the waiting list to the date your orders were cut, others may not. It’s not safe to assume that CDC care is standardized and that the options you currently enjoy (or wish you had) will be the same at the gaining base.
Paying for military child care means submitting income information, but don’t assume that CDC care, for example, is billed based on the servicemember’s income alone. Total household income is used to measure your CDC bill, not your earnings. Do not omit your spouse’s income when submitting data to the CDC, this can have serious consequences.
Where special needs or Exceptional Family Member Program enrollees are concerned, parents should know that DoD policy includes making reasonable accommodations for children who have or are at risk of chronic illness, disability, developmental issues, and other concerns.
In getting child care for these clients, you may be asked for some basic information about your child’s condition or needs to make those reasonable accommodations happen.
Parents are considered an important part of the planning process in such cases, and you should expect to be involved in the discussions about placement and services for your child or children.
Do not hesitate to ask questions about aspects of DoD child care you do not understand, and don’t hesitate to elevate a concern if you have issues that are not being addressed.
Alternative Childcare Options for Military Families
Military Child Care
If you are researching your childcare options, once you have checked your local installation’s Child Development Centers you might need to look for alternatives. Military Child Care may have resources for childcare providers on or near your installation usually from their home on base), in addition to the CDCs. If you live off-post, it’s best to search by installation name.
Child Care Aware of America
Child Care Aware of America is an organization that works with more than 400 state and local Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agencies nationwide. You can conduct a CCR&R search for options near your home or work.
One of the best resources at the Child Care Aware official site is their database of state-by-state resources for child care, financial assistance, health, and social services.
Another alternative option for finding child care is Care.com, a nationwide company offering services for childcare, senior care, housekeeping, pet care, and special needs.
Care.com allows you to select when you need care: now, within a week, or a month. This flexibility is helpful for those who work onsite a few days a week but telework the rest. Once you’ve given your timeline, you can seek care at your home or in a daycare center, and then they display your options. Care.com is not directly affiliated with the military.
Related: Active Duty Benefits Guide